The move to biometric identification in Australia should be met with fierce skepticism and fortunately, Australians are in a privileged position to do just this. They need only look to Aadhaar, the world’s largest biometric experiment to date, which has been operating in India nationwide since 2009. In its inaugural decade Aadhaar has revealed its vulnerabilities to fraud, hacking and the development of a surveillance state. While it does offer some compelling administrative and security benefits, particularly in welfare states where poverty and corruption are rife, these seem trivial in comparison to Aadhaar’s violation of an individual’s fundamental right to privacy. As a result, biometric identification via a national, centralised database looks a pernicious route for Australia to follow.
So what are biometrics and where did they come from?
Biometrics are biological measurements which identify the unique physical characteristics of individuals (Smyth, 2019, p. 1). They have become increasingly prevalent in modern life’s institutions and technology, often taking the form of facial and voice recognition as well as fingerprint and iris scans. However, biometrics have not always existed in such sophisticated and diverse capacities. Rather, they have evolved over the course of the last two centuries.
While the practice of fingerprinting can be dated back to 14th-Century China, the 19th-Century Persian anthropologist Alphonse Bertillon was the first to conceptualise biometrics’ potential as a mass protective technology (Smyth, 2019, p. 26). He developed Bertillonage, a technique whereby the most distinguishing features of the human body (scars, birth marks, tattoos, arm span etc.) were measured and then recorded to identify criminals. In the early 20th-Century, fingerprinting supplanted Bertillonage. More nuanced and precise in its measurement, it became an important mechanism for identification of criminals in the prisons of numerous countries around the world (Otti, 2017, p. 164).
However, until the 1960s, biometric identification remained limited by its analogue nature. The advent of database management systems and online processes presented a critical leap forward for biometrics as these technologies allowed vast quantities of data to be easily stored and matched (Otti, 2017, p. 165).
Interestingly, India’s initial use for digitised biometric data was to monitor national criminal activity and the threat of terrorism (Smyth, 2019, p. 40). However, in modern day India, its latest iteration of biometric identification, Aadhaar, harbours a far more ambitious mission. Aadhaar is a voluntary program that supplies a 12 digit unique-identity number to all Indian residents who offer their biometric data (iris scan, fingerprint, photo of face) and demographic data (name, date of birth and address) up to the Unique Identification Authority (UIDAI – a statutory authority with a formal database, operating under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology). The data, integrated into a personalised card, seeks to grant Aadhaar members convenient access to a host of government services such as welfare, transport, bank accounts, mobile numbers etc.
The case for an Australian Aadhaar
A nationwide biometric identification system such as Aadhaar could advance Australia’s national security. As a result of the facial photo that is required to join the project, there would be a database of citizen’s faces that could be integrated with existing technology such as CCTV. This would grant authorities the ability to track criminals and suspected wrongdoers 24/7, which could be especially useful during large-scale events where police do not have the ability to assess masses of people quickly. Further, Aadhaar might provide a more convenient and efficient delivery of public services in Australia. For instance, Australian government services such as Centrelink are renown for their wait-times and queues (Ketchell, 2017). An online service such as Aadhaar would allow welfare recipients to perform their own identity checks which would arguably be less time-consuming and cumbersome as one would not run the risk of losing a card and/or paperwork. This presents the added benefit of ridding paper documentation which is in step with an environmentally sustainable future.
The case against an Australian Aadhaar
Biometric identification appears to encourage the growth of despotic surveillance states. Aadhaar allows for an individual’s demographic information to be shared with many institutions and companies from both the private and public sector. However, Aadhaar heavily protects an individual’s biometric data ([BYJU’S IAS], 2017). Importantly, it may only be shared in two extraordinary cases: firstly, in the interest of national security whereby a Joint Secretary in the central government may issue a direction for the data, and secondly, on the order of a court. In the former case, it is critical to note that ‘national security’ is nebulously defined in the legislation ([BYJU’S IAS], 2017). In this way, it seems possible to abuse the flexibility of such vague terminology. In fact, it is not difficult to imagine governments hellbent on maintaining power labelling political opponents and dissidents as national security threats to gain their data for unjustified ends (e.g. intimidation, smear campaigns, murder etc). As Conor Friedersdorf (2018) reports, one important role of the National Security Agency in America was to spy specifically on Members of Congress. It feels wilfully optimistic to see this unfolding in a significantly more ethical manner in an Australian context.
‘Seeding’ is another matter of grave concern. This is the process by which Aadhaar has become inextricable from other databases that concern aspects of daily life including bank cards, driving licenses, ration cards, mobile numbers and passports. Much like in the case of Cambridge Analytica in which personal data was used to profile individuals and subsequently influence their political opinions, Aadhaar appears capable of something harrowingly similar. As Shyam Divan (2018) argues, ‘it seeks to tether every resident of India to an electronic leash’ which ‘is connected to a central database that’s designed to track transactions across the life of the citizen’. In this sense, it is a credible threat that the state may profile its citizens and inconspicuously influence their behaviour. Also, as Alterman (2003, p. 144) suggests, if companies were to get into bed with government and gain access to this data, they could manipulate consumer behaviour for commercial ends.
Further, the Central Identities Data Repository is a centralised database which stores biometric and demographic data for the Aadhaar project. Over a billion people’s sensitive information on one centralised database is a profound issue. It presents a serious security concern as hackers have potentially less barriers to navigate for access to far greater amounts of sensitive information. In fact, last year the Tribune, an Indian newspaper made this clear in an investigative piece in which they paid hackers the equivalent of 10 AUD in exchange for access to the data of over one billion people. Further, no less than 15 deaths have been the direct result of Aadhaar system errors in which individuals were denied their basic welfare entitlements. And as Reetika Khera (2018) has reported, there were over one hundred documented instances of fraud connected to Aadhaar by 2018, including forged Aadhaar cards to open bank accounts and take out loans.
It is important to remember that Aadhaar was created primarily because the subsidies (pensions, food grains etc) provided by India’s welfare state were not reaching those entitled to them. This was due to the fact that the subsidies were delivered through middlemen. Firstly, corrupt middlemen who would pocket some of the welfare recipients’ benefits caused huge leakage in the system. And secondly, middlemen would inflate the number of beneficiaries when reporting to the government to receive more subsidies and then proceed to keep this surplus money for themselves ([BYJU’S IAS], 2017). Aadhaar attempts to circumvent some of these issues by depositing money directly into bank accounts which are linked with the program. In this way, Aadhaar operates as a tool to tackle India’s unique experience of poverty and corruption. In contemporary Australia, poverty and corruption are significantly less abject and widespread. For this reason, biometric identification in an Australian context appears even less justified.
So, what future looks more promising for Australia?
As discussed, a centralised biometric identification system like Aadhaar would be a dangerous option for Australia. While it might improve national security, access to public services and reduce administrative costs, it does so at a hefty price – the basic right to privacy.
Alterman, A. (2003). “A piece of yourself’: Ethical issues in biometric identification. Ethics and Information Technology, 5(3), 139-150. doi: 10.1023/B:ETIN.0000006918.22060.1f
[BYJU’S IAS]. (2017, September 4). Aadhaar: Importance of Aadhaar Card [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsSCpgppKz8/
Friedersdorf, C. (2014, January 6). The Danger of NSA Spying on Members of Congress. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/01/the-danger-of-nsa-spying-on-members-of-congress/282827/
Heanue, S. (2018, September 2018). Aadhaar, the world’s largest biometric identity database, approved by India’s Supreme Court. ABC NEWS. Retrieved from https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-09-26/aadhaar-biometric-identity-database-approved-by-indian-court/10309052/
Ketchell, M. (2017, March 21). The truth behind Centrelink’s waiting times. The Conversation. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/infographic-the-truth-behind-centrelinks-waiting-times/
Khaira, R. (2018, January 4). RS 500, 10 minutes, and you have access to billion Aadhaar details. The Tribune. Retrieved from https://www.tribuneindia.com/news/nation/rs-500-10-minutes-and-you-have-access-to-billion-aadhaar-details/
Otti, C. (2017). The past, present and future of biometrics. Annals of the Faculty of Engineering Hunedoara, 16(20), 163-168. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1915760564/
Reetika, K. (2018, August 10). These digital IDs have cost people their privacy — and their lives. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/theworldpost/wp/2018/08/09/aadhaar/
Smyth, S. M. (2019). Biometrics, Surveillance and the Law. London, England: Routledge. doi: 10.4324/9780429022326